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From a Man Booker nominee: ‘I can’t say I lost what I didn’t have’

As Marlon James wins this year’s prize, Concordia professor Josip Novakovich assesses the power — and the price — of literary awards
October 13, 2015
By Josip Novakovich

This year's nominees for the Man Booker Prize. | Image courtesy of The Guardian This year's nominees for the Man Booker Prize. | Image courtesy of The Guardian

On October 13, 2015, Marlon James became the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize: he landed the literary award with his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings
(Riverhead Books, 2014). We asked Concordia professor Josip Novakovich to describe the tumultuous time after his own 2013 Man Booker International nomination.

People ask me, what was like being nominated for the Man Booker International Prize? Was it good for me? I’d say, mixed. I spent a lot of time not writing, but traveling and talking about writing. I also got some attention.

When the newspapers in Canada announced that I was a finalist, I said in an interview in  Le Devoir  that it was peculiar that I was published in 15 languages but not in French, so the nomination was a challenge to Quebec publishers.

A day later, I got a call from Les éditions du Boreal. Jean Bernier and Pascal Assathiany, the editor and the publisher, asked to see me, and I told them an anecdote about my publisher in Russia, who would from now on publish only Booker winners and Nobel nominees. They laughed, and said, “Okay, bring us your books and we’ll publish three or four of them.” And they did.

Without the nomination, that probably would not have happened, and I would have been resentful about two solitudes. But now I have an impression that the divide between the two languages in Quebec needn’t be there.

The Booker nomination itself was great, but it struck me as strange that I would have to travel to London to participate in the final presentation of the award, in a gala ceremony, with a bow tie. The first time I visited England, in 1974, I was worried that I looked too clean, and I had to rub my jeans with bricks to pale them.

And now the opposite happened — I worried that I looked too dirty. Fortunately, at the time I was spending a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. So I got a nice suit in downtown Jerusalem for a good price, and in London, I got a bow tie.

Although it’s simple to put on, somehow I wasn’t succeeding, and the British ambassador to Croatia, with whom I’d had a luncheon, helped me clip it on before cocktails at his club, Athenaeum.

Then I went to the South Bank to give a reading with the nominees, Lydia Davis [who won] and a few others. It was hot. Moreover, in an unfortunate fall two weeks before, I had broken ribs. I was taking painkillers, so it wasn't all that much fun to be in London.

Still, it was an honour to sit next to Bianca Jagger and talk about landmines in the Balkans, and Jason Camlot from Concordia, who happened to be doing research at the British Library that May, and to talk to Howard Jacobson and Tibor Fischer.

I didn’t expect to win, of course, and I can’t say I lost what I didn’t have. I just didn’t win.

Before the awards ceremony, people from Pakistan were surrounding me and inviting me to a festival; the Chinese likewise. But the following day, I got together with some old friends of mine in a pub, and they treated me to a round of weak English ale: 3.4 percent, which I could drink despite my painkillers.

After London, I flew to Zagreb, Croatia, to participate in the Festival of the European Short Story — I probably wouldn’t have been invited if it hadn’t been for the nomination — and a couple of publishers there wanted to bring out my books. Also, the local newspaper invited me to be a columnist.

So yes, there were good things stemming from being in the running for a Booker award, but it’s a yin-and-yang kind of thing. The distractions surrounding it paradoxically detracted from my writing time and effort for a while.

No matter who won today, the prizes are useful because they advertise writing to a wide audience directly, as they recommend books for their quality, and indirectly, by attracting the attention of publishers and newspaper editors.

I think it’s great that Svetlana Alexievich, a not-very-famous writer, has won the Nobel Prize for her important writing about Chernobyl. It helped Solzhenitsyn in the same manner, and perhaps contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Likewise, the Man Booker International Prize has championed, for example, novelist and poet Ismail Kadare from Albania. That strikes me as a better way to use the prize than to give it to, let’s say, Don DeLillo or some other already rich and famous writer.


The Croatian-born writer Josip Novakovich is a professor in Concordia’s Department of English. His substantial body of work, including three short-story collections and a novel, was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Read about Josip Novakovich’s latest collection of short stories, Ex-Yu.

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